By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com
Tough and ready: Over 25 days since they fired Rob Chudzinski after one year as coach, the Browns have taken shots from all corners of the NFL world and beyond. Described as “dysfunctional,” “radioactive,” and “toxic” is no way to lure a qualified leader.
But the healing of the battered franchise began on Thursday with the introduction of Mike Pettine, 47, as their new coach.
Pettine, formerly the defensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills who spent seven formative seasons as an assistant with the Baltimore Ravens, struck the right chords. His no-nonsense, blue-collar approach was evident in an economy of words with no promises other than toughness and accountability.
“My vision here in Cleveland … to compete in the AFC North, you have to be willing to bloody your nose a little bit,” Pettine said. “That’s the mentality we’re going to take. This team is going to be built on toughness.
“I think as important or more important is the mental toughness – the ability to think through things when they aren’t going well, to hang tough when things go bad, so that heads don’t drop and it’s ‘same old Browns,’ and teams talk themselves into losing.
“That, to me, is the culture that needs to be changed here. We’re going to build a team not just physically tough but also mentally.”
Pettine said his inspiration always has been his father, Mike Sr., a legendary high school coach outside Philadelphia, PA, from whom he learned to hate football but ultimately to love it.
Pettine played the game with a chip on his shoulder, trying to prove he wasn’t the starting quarterback just because his father was coach. Later he coached against his father, losing all five meetings. And then when he jumped to the NFL, he coached with a chip, trying to prove he wasn’t just a high school coach who got a lucky break.
“The only time he smiles is when he talks about his dad or his family,” owner Jimmy Haslam said after the introduction. “I think he’s perfect. He’s tough. He’s hard-nosed. But let’s face it, he has to win games.”
Healing scars: Pettine was one of 10 candidates interviewed in a coaching search that raised eyebrows nationally for drawing less than the best candidates. The process seemed wayward as candidates withdrew their names or took other jobs as assistant coaches.
Pettine came to be regarded in some circles as one candidate willing to accept all the perceived strings attached to job, knowing the security of the position was suspect and that he was not the top choice.
“It’s not unnerving,” he said. “I don’t know the circumstances (of Chud’s firing). I only know what’s put in front of me -- a leadership group committed to winning, a young roster, plenty of cap space, a deep draft, plenty of picks. Sometimes (it’s) the cockiness of a coach. I’ll bet on myself. I didn’t want to back away from a job because of a lack of perceived security.
“These opportunities don’t come along often. People say, ‘Why don’t you wait? There’ll be chances next year.’ I don’t know if I believe in that. I look at this situation, when you put all the factors together, this franchise is in position, given the right leadership, to win.”
The reputations of Haslam, CEO Joe Banner and GM Mike Lombardi took on comical proportions when they were dubbed “the Three Stooges” at the Chudzinski firing press conference on Dec. 30.
Banner made light of it at the onset of Pettine’s introduction, joking, “Since Mike Lombardi and I were Moe and Larry, we set out to find Curly and we succeeded. That’s why it took so long. There aren’t a lot of Curlies running around the country.”
But off to the side, Banner conceded the relentless attacks singed him. He said, “Yeah, I’m glad it’s over.”
“It’s not pleasurable personally or for the organization, but to be honest, somewhat unjustified,” Banner said. “Not completely. We understand we made a mistake, by our own assessment, so we’re not oblivious to that. So it wasn’t fun. And it was also hard to not be in a position to respond to it.”
Banner said the “toughest decision” of the search was in electing not to wait till after the Feb. 2 Super Bowl to wait for Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, who was the other finalist. He said he and Haslam didn’t arrive at that decision until Thursday.
“He is an outstanding guy and outstanding coach,” Banner said of Quinn. “There’s no doubt in our mind he’ll be an excellent head coach. So that was a tough call. But in the end, we felt we knew him well enough and had the chance to spend time with Mike. That was probably the toughest decision.
“The worry of waiting was just the status of assistant coaches. Both of their (prospective) lists remain strong enough that, if we felt (Quinn) would be likely to prevail, we would not have liked to have wait -- would not have wait to take 10 more days of pummeling -- but we would have waited.”
Ultimately, Banner said, Pettine prevailed because of “the combination of looking for somebody who was smart, tough, aggressive, understood where the team was at, what it needed, and frankly a defensive coach that also had a mindset about being aggressive on offense. If we were going to go with a defensive coach this year, we wanted to make sure it was somebody who had an aggressive mindset.”
As for the perception the Browns’ situation was “radioactive” or “toxic,” Haslam blamed that on the media.
“I think that’s a perception that you all have generated,” he said. “That’s not the perception among the candidates, that’s not the perception among football people that I talk to around the country. This perception that’s been created out there is not reality.”
But even Pettine’s 19-year-old daughter, Megan, held that perception. Upon learning her father would be interviewing a second time with the Browns, Megan Tweeted, “it’s the browns, but … hey, still pretty cool.”
Pettine said his daughter learned a valuable lesson about the power of social media and jokingly begged for forgiveness.
“Let’s not forget where she came from,” he said. “Her formative years were spent in Baltimore, where she was trained to not be a Browns fans. I hope we can give her a little leniency that way.”
Get to work: One perception that is reality, Pettine confirmed, was that the Browns were way behind the rest of the league in taking care of business. He was the last of seven new head coaches hired this year.
While all other teams focused on draft-eligible players at the Senior Bowl this past week, Pettine was well aware the Browns were obsessed with their coaching search.
“That’s absolute reality,” Pettine said. “Soon as I get out of here, I’m going to right to my office, put some sweats on and get on the phone. We need to get our staff built.
“We’re behind building a staff and we’re behind the entire rest of the league as far as our preparation for free agency and our prepration for the draft.”
|Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com. |
He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to firstname.lastname@example.orgFollow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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